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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
107 Countries Approve Cluster Munitions Treaty
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Jeff Abramson

On May 30 in Dublin, 107 countries agreed to the text of a new treaty that calls for the clearance and destruction of virtually all existing cluster munitions but will permit the use of more advanced cluster-like arms. However, backers of the new Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) did not include those holding the majority of the world’s cluster munition stockpiles, who are opting to instead address the humanitarian impact of the munitions within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse small submunitions over broad areas that sometimes fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing noncombatants.

Key Compromises Reached

Cluster munitions date back to at least World War II, when they were air-dropped by Soviet and German forces. Traditionally, the weapons were designed for use against mobile, diffuse targets, such as large vehicle or troop formations, although they have sometimes been used more widely. The United States, which possesses a stockpile of more than 700 million submunitions, used the weapons in the 1960s and 1970s in Southeast Asia, leaving an estimated 20 million unexploded bomblets in Laos alone at the end of the Vietnam War. Most recently, Israel fired cluster munitions into Lebanon during hostilities in the summer of 2006, with perhaps 1 million submunitions failing to explode initially. (See ACT, January/February 2008.) Hezbollah reportedly fired other cluster munitions into northern Israel that same year.

The exchange raised a humanitarian outcry, and at the end of 2006, Norway announced that it would take the lead on restricting the weapons after Russia, the United States, and some other countries party to the CCW refused to accelerate the pace of work on the weapons in that forum. The so-called Oslo process drew on a nongovernmental movement that had already coalesced around the weapons, comprised of many of the same individuals and organizations that had led the effort to create the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines. (See ACT, December 2007.) Through major conferences in Oslo (February 2007), Lima (May 2007), Vienna (December 2007), and Wellington (February 2008) and smaller, regional meetings, the Oslo process expanded to include more than 100 countries.

The text agreed to in Dublin requires the destruction of all forbidden cluster munitions within eight years and the clearance of all areas afflicted with unexploded cluster submunition remnants within 10 years. Extensions may be requested if these deadlines cannot be met. The accord also includes measures for international assistance to victims of cluster munitions. Countries will be able to sign the treaty beginning in Oslo Dec. 3, and then it will enter into force six months after 30 governments sign and ratify it.

A major question going into the Dublin conference was whether eventual CCM states-parties would be able to cooperate militarily with the United States or other non-states-parties. The desire to maintain interoperability put U.S. allies, in particular the United Kingdom, in a “delicate” position at the Dublin conference, according to one British diplomat who spoke with Arms Control Today June 19.

To address these concerns, a compromise was reached in Dublin with the inclusion of Article 21, specifically clarifying “relations with states not party to this convention.” It permits military cooperation even when cluster munitions are used, as long as member states do not “expressly request the use of cluster munitions in cases where the choice of munitions used is within its exclusive control.” This rather broad exemption made it much easier for U.S. allies to support the convention, as the United Kingdom dramatically did May 28 when Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a statement that, “[i]n order to secure as strong a Convention as possible in the last hours of negotiation we have issued instructions that we should support a ban on all cluster bombs, including those currently in service” by the United Kingdom.

Although abstaining from the Oslo process, the United States did exert pressue on its participants. During a May 21 press briefing as the Dublin meeting was in its initial days, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stephen D. Mull repeated U.S. interoperability arguments that the draft treaty could be read as calling for the criminalization of military cooperation between eventual member and nonmember states. Because U.S. ships carry cluster munitions, he further extended the argument to say that U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian assistance could be cut off, raising the stakes for the global community. Mull also said that “a much more effective way to go about this is to pursue technological fixes that will make sure that these weapons are no longer viable once the conflict is over.”

A separate concession on the definition of cluster munitions partially reflects U.S. preference for technological improvements instead of an outright ban. In Article 2, negotiators exempted munitions that “avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions” by requiring that no more than nine explosive submunitions be included in a cluster munition and that each of them meet the following characteristics: weigh more than 4 kilograms and less than 20 kilograms; be designed to detect and engage a single target; and be equipped with an electronic self-destruct mechanism and an electronic self-deactivating feature. According to most experts, current U.S. weapons do not meet these requirements, but the British diplomat indicated an expectation that Western technology will improve over time.

Treaty’s Impact to Be Determined

As the Dublin conference drew to a close, many participants expressed optimism that their efforts would lead to a global norm. Advocates called on eventual states-parties to ask their nonmember allies to remove any cluster munitions stockpiled on a member’s territory in order to further the norm against use. Nonetheless, the nonparticipation of many countries and continued claims of military utility for the weapons means that questions will remain about the impact of the convention.

In his closing statement May 30 in Dublin, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin noted that although “important states [are] not present, I am also convinced that together we will have succeeded in stigmatizing any future use of cluster munitions.” In response to questions from Arms Control Today, Dutch diplomats indicated in e-mails June 18 that they view the CCM as a new international humanitarian norm and that the Netherlands would work to convince other countries to join the treaty.

In a June 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a European diplomat cited the Ottawa Convention as an example that “a norm can be created even without important users and stockpilers participating.” Since the 1997 opening for signature of the Ottawa Convention, the trade and production of anti-personnel mines has essentially ceased. Even though major producers and stockpilers of anti-personnel mines have not become states-parties to the convention, most have generally stopped planting new mines. (See ACT, December 2007.) The CCM is patterned after the Ottawa Convention, in some places sharing the exact same language.

The British diplomat indicated that London is committed to maintaining interoperability and wants to be “in front of the international movement,” intending to do “more than just the letter of the treaty.” As such, it has been closely watched for its response to calls for eventual states-parties to ask allies, especially the United States, to remove cluster munitions from any bases on a CCM member’s territory.

On June 3, Foreign and Commonwealth Office deputy minister Mark Malloch-Brown indicated that, “at the end of that eight-year period [for stockpile destruction], even a country such as the [United States], were it not a signatory, would no longer be able to keep such weapons on UK territory.” Deputy defense minister Bob Ainsworth clarified on June 5 that the CCM “does not prevent the [United States] from continuing to stockpile cluster munitions on their bases within UK territory (including Diego Garcia). However, in keeping with our commitment to uphold the norms of the treaty, we will be discussing with the [United States] the longer-term status of their stockpiles on UK territory.”

Dutch diplomats indicated that their country was still studying the question of third-party stockpile removal.

Danish Ambassador Bent Wigotski, a delegate to the Dublin meeting and the CCW, indicated in a June 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today that Denmark reads Article 21 as providing “no reason to support actions to remove U.S. cluster munitions from bases in countries parties to the new convention.”

He also argued that many of the major stockpilers of cluster munitions maintain the weapons for military use and therefore will not comply with the new convention. Wigotski said, “Countries possessing more than 90 percent of the world stockpiles do not take part in the Oslo process and have no intention of acceding to the convention…. [A]ny comparison with the Ottawa Convention is misleading. Cluster munitions are much more important for a number of countries, constituting a very significant part of their firepower.” Mull expressed similar sentiments, saying in the May press briefing, “We think that it is going to be impossible to ban cluster munitions, as many in the Oslo process would like to do, because these are weapons that have a certain military utility and are of use. The United States relies on them as an important part of our own defense strategy.”

Although opponents argue that today’s war-fighting is unlikely to fit the open troop formation scenarios for which cluster munitions were originally designed, the CCM attempts to offer a way through the military utility debate with the exemption for munitions that avoid indiscriminate effects. “The exclusion of these types of munitions…is one prerequisite for universalization of the convention,” the European diplomat said, adding that it will allow states-parties “to keep necessary military capabilities…while preventing the continued use of cluster munitions that…cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”

One munition that meets these requirements, according to the European diplomat, is the German-produced SMArt-155, which only contains two submunitions, can target individual objects, and has self-destruct and self-deactivation capabilities. It has not been used in combat to date.

Whether additional countries will take this option and make the transition to more expensive alternate munitions or simply abandon cluster munitions remains to be seen.

Next Steps in the CCW

As the Oslo process was launched, countries participating in the CCW opted to begin negotiations on the weapons. Those discussions are conducted primarily through a government group of experts on CCW Protocol V, which entered into force Nov. 12, 2006, and covers explosive remnants of war, of which unexploded cluster munitions are a subset. Many major cluster munitions producers and stockpilers, including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, have stayed out of the Oslo process in favor of the CCW.

The successful conclusion of the CCM may put added pressure on the countries participating in the CCW to reach a new accord by a November meeting of CCW states-parties, the target date suggested by numerous diplomats. Although any agreement that comes out of the CCW is unlikely to include as sweeping a limitation on cluster munitions as the CCM, many participants hope that it would be accepted by countries that currently possess the majority of the world’s stockpiles and thereby dramatically lessen the humanitarian toll of historic and future cluster munitions use.

A Dutch official stated that “Dublin definitely adds urgency to the CCW process.” The European diplomat said that CCW participating countries that abstained from the Oslo process “now have an opportunity to show that the CCW is up to the challenge” of addressing cluster munitions and added that “out of the 105 states-parties to the CCW, 68 participated in the Dublin conference and adopted the text of the new [CCM].”

During his May press conference, Mull recognized humanitarian issues related to cluster munitions and reiterated Washington’s desire to address those concerns through the CCW process, which he described as the “place where all of the principal producers and users of these munitions vote and participate and work together.” Wigotski stressed the Danish belief “that the participation in the CCW of all the major users and producers should make it possible for the CCW to produce a legally binding protocol with an added value and impact in the real world—covering the more than 90 percent of world stockpile not affected by the Oslo process.”

The next major meeting of the pertinent CCW group of experts takes place July 7-25 in Geneva. Additional meetings are scheduled for Sept. 1-5 and early November, which would allow for preparation of a protocol to be presented at the annual meeting of states-parties set for Nov. 13-14.

Exactly what that protocol might entail is still unclear. Public statements by U.S. officials and communications to Arms Control Today by diplomats from Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom all express a desire to conclude a protocol that prohibits the use of cluster munitions that cause “unacceptable harm” or a similar formulation of that term. Wigotski stated, “[I]n the view of Denmark, the CCW should at least take action affecting those types of cluster munitions that have no self-destruction, self-deactivation, or self-neutralization features.” The European diplomat pointed to a May 2007 proposal that ultimately envisages a complete prohibition on cluster munitions as “a sound basis for a CCW result.” The British diplomat expressed hope of “coming out with an acceptable, sensible compromise at the end of the day.”

The advance copy of the chairperson’s draft discussion paper for a protocol on cluster muntions includes articles on clearance and destruction, victim assistance, and cooperation and assistance but leaves blank articles on general prohibitions and restrictions and storage and destruction. Rather than simply calling for a blanket restriction on cluster munitions use, the draft allows for military purposes and relies on avoiding “incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, [and] damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

Given the possibility that countries not participating in the Oslo process may agree to a new CCW protocol, the collective result could be new international norms that dramatically lessen the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions use.

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Corrected online October 8, 2008. See explanation.